South Africans don’t know much about science. Why this is a problem

Most South Africans don’t visit places where they can learn about science such as zoos and museums. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

From the microchips in smart phones to the largest jumbo jets, science and technology influences the way people interact with the world around them. It brings them closer to friends and family, enhances health care, secures assets and keeps the world moving forward.

Traditionally, people have turned to science for certainty and confirmation. But in a sea of social media and allegations of fake news, it has become increasingly harder for people to distinguish fact from fiction. As a result, science’s authoritative place in society is being questioned more and more. This has the ability to erode the value and importance of science and technology in general.

One way to tackle this is to monitor people’s understanding of the scientific areas that are trending to establish what their understanding of science is.

We set out to measure South Africa’s understanding of science by conducting a survey looking at how much people know about different areas of science, what their attitudes are, what interests them and how they get their information.

Not surprisingly people know more about areas of science that influence them directly. Personal health, for example, takes precedence over astronomy. But at least 40% of the people we asked had no interest in any area in science. And few people are doing activities where they could learn about science.

Unless these gaps are bridged, South Africans will not see the value that science and technology adds to their daily lives. And the country will not be able to use the power of science to find innovative solutions to its problems.

Where the interests lie

To measure how people understood science, we did six exercises with our respondents.

In one, for example, we gave them nine true or false questions to see how much they knew about science. In another exercise we asked them which areas of science they were more interested in. We gave them a list of sevens areas:

  • technology and the internet

  • climate change

  • economics

  • politics

  • energy

  • astronomy, and

  • medical science

The respondents were more interested in areas such as technology and the internet but less in climate change, economics and energy.

Although most of the respondents had a positive attitude to science, nearly 40% were ambivalent. This is concerning because it means they could be open to questioning valid science in the future.

We also wanted to know how people learnt about science. We gave people 11 options of places they could find information about science. Radio (69.4%) was the primary source of information, followed by free-to-air TV (65.0%) and word of mouth. Surprisingly, online-based information sources like social media, blogs, institutional websites and news websites were at the bottom of their list of information sources.

A scientific way of thinking

Science should be considered as a systematic way of thinking to build knowledge and test experience through factual observation. Not just as a career or qualification.

Rüdiger Laugksch from the University of Cape Town, a researcher in scientific literacy and education in South Africa, argues that improving scientific literacy in South Africa is important for three reasons.

Firstly, it will lead to the country having a pool of people who can drive innovative and smart ways of doing things.

Secondly, it will mean that citizens will have a certain level of proficiency in science and technology. This will help them to make knowledge-driven decisions.

Thirdly, scientific literacy can help people make informed and effective decisions about public policy and nation building.

The products of science – like knowledge, technologies and innovations – can all close the gaps in development and infrastructure. But first, South Africa needs to get to the point of valuing and understanding the contribution science makes to daily life.